How can we find hope for juvenile offenders?
Today is Holy Thursday. We are in the darkest days of the Christian calendar. These are the days of betrayal and death - the days of waiting by the tomb.
It is apt, then, that this morning I read about this study from the Pathways to Decistance, which followed about 1,000 juvenile offenders for a seven-year period. As a part of the study, researchers conducted in-person interviews with the teens as some grew out of the criminal justice system while others became more and more ensnared. At the end of the study, the research suggests that teens who thought that they would die young were the most likely to reoffend. The teens (between 14 and 18 years old) who expected to die young were more likely, not only to commit more crimes, but also to commit more serious crimes than those who predicted that they would live into old age.
Alex Piquero, the author of the latest paper resulting from the study, says that many of the subjects who cannot imagine a long life for themselves live in places with "trash in the neighborhoods, syringes on the street, drugs selling in the neighborhoods." The teens are the products of cyclical and systemic poverty, giving them very little context for a broader world with a broader future.
It makes inherent sense, right? Teens are not necessarily known for their great decision-making skills, but a lot of teens have some kind of perspective that there is something beyond their teen years. For all of the "invincible teen" stereotypes that permeate our society, I know that when I was a teen, I was thinking about college. I was thinking about what happened beyond college. But if you are a teenager who cannot imagine that you will live long enough to have a family or a job or even a future, then the only context your life could possibly have is the one that you already know.
What really took my breath away about this study, however, was that 45 of the subjects died before the study ended.
It is easy to look at this study and feel despair. But we can also read this and understand that the circumstances these young people are finding themselves in are not inevitable. Piquero says "These kids who envision very short lives are also having problems in many other life domains, with failed schooling, failed jobs, failed relationship, failed health care."
This means that we in this country, and in the Catholic community, can turn our attention to the systems that can make a difference: education, health care, long-term unemployment. Only when we start to address the social ills that plague some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities can we hope to remedy the cycles of violence and crime that go along with those communities.
Today is Holy Thursday. As we enter the darkness, we can look to the promise of the resurrection. We stare into hope. But if we are to live into that promise, we should be looking into those situations that seem utterly hopeless and asking ourselves how hope can be breathed back into despair.
Image: By Tanankyo (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.